“Ninety-five percent of our guests eat the same thing each time they visit and have for 35 years,” said Executive Chef Al Tholen. There are few better indicators of success.
Tholen is smart enough to celebrate the Casa kind of success, even as he works to develop new recipes for off-menu specials, which change every two months.
Some of his recipes become classics on the menu. He remembers about a dozen, most recently a dessert called Nona’s Bread Pudding. Diners tried the pudding and immediately wanted it to be available at every visit, he said.
And they got their wish.
“I’m responsible for making sure that every guest in each of the Casa’s has a great culinary experience every time,” he said. “That’s my job description.”
Tholen is convinced he has his best job ever at Casa’s. It just took him a while to get there, despite the fact that he’s been cooking since childhood.
“My mother is responsible, and not the way you think,” he said. “She hated to cook. She didn’t even know where the kitchen was, so if I was going to eat anything, I had to fend for myself.”
He did a great deal more than just fending.
“I started to mess around in the kitchen, and the more I did it, the more I loved it,” he said. “I discovered I had a passion for it.”
His mother inadvertently arranged for some very valuable Iron Chef-style training, too. She told their neighbor, a mother of six who worked at a bank, Tholen remembers, what her son could create in the kitchen.
“She offered me my first job at 14 for a dollar a day to cook their family meal,” he said. “That was my first professional job.”
His employer would take something out of the freezer in the morning, and he would arrive after school to unwrap it and decide what to do with it.
“One day I unwrapped a beef tongue,” he said. But he figured out how to cook it, and the family enjoyed it.
His passion took him from growing up in New Haven straight to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. His wife, whom he lost to cancer last year after 38 years of marriage, had asked him for only one promise when they left home here for New York — to come back home.
So they returned to Fort Wayne, where he apprenticed at a local country club.
“For eight months I worked with a German chef who liked to yell and scream and throw things,” he said. “I came home one night and said to my wife, ‘I’m not sure I made the right decision.’”
But he knew he loved the hospitality business, so he prepared for wider responsibilities. They went to Miami where he earned a degree in restaurant management from Florida International University.
And they came home again, this time to a job for Tholen for Alex Azar at the Marriott hotel as assistant food and beverage director.
But it was through that job that he met two men whom Azar had also brought in: Chef Jerry Wilson (whom he calls a genius) and Lee Harper, who managed the front of the houses and was the sea captain character for the Moonraker’s marketing.
“Lee was one of my greatest mentors,” he said. He followed Harper to Ivy Tech’s then-new culinary program and a new teaching career began.
He later had all sorts of management positions out of town, including a few years in Detroit where he and his wife helped his daughter raise her family while she was in medical school. When her health began to fail, they returned home for a final time so she could be close to her family.
And Tholen had his lucky break.
“It was the right thing to do and also a blessing because I met the Casaburos and they adopted me,” he said. He and the elder Tom Casaburo “instantly bonded. We had a great deal in common. He grew up near Hyde Park, and we knew a lot of the same places and people.”
Tholen now works with the second generation, sons Jim and T, whom he calls “incredible guys poised to take the company into the next generation.”
Those off-menu specials he creates six times a year? He first cooks them for the Casaburo family.
“They tell me what they like and don’t like and suggest changes,” he said, and the recipes are finalized.
He relishes the challenge of cooking for the family, but he admits that he most enjoys teaching the staffs in each of the four restaurants how to cook the specials.
“I’m doing one dish, and they are doing 40 or 50 at the same time,” he said. “So they are looking for ways to mix it in with what they are already doing. They are so excited about doing these new menu items, and they take such ownership. They want to make it work.
“The creativity is a ball, but watching how it works is my favorite.”